Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Childhood In Place of Satire - Parks and Recreation Reviewed

The following review of NBC’s ‘Parks and Recreation’ appears in the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Childhood In Place of Satire

By Santiago Ramos

So far, the biggest development in the second season of the NBC comedy, Parks and Recreation, has been the transformation of a pit into an empty lot. Since the very first episode of the first season, the premise of the show has been that a huge pit - left over from an abandoned construction project - has been sitting in the middle of a residential neighborhood in the small town of Pawnee, Indiana. City Hall had been doing nothing about it.

A local nurse named Ann Perkins (played by Rashida Jones, formerly of The Office), who lives next door to the pit, brings her complaint before a town hall meeting with the Department of Parks and Recreation. There she meets Leslie Knope (Saturday Night Live’s Amy Poehler), a dopey mid-level bureaucrat and naïve idealist, whose heroes include Madeleine Albright and Condoleeza Rice. Knope decides that the pit must be filled in and turned into a park for the neighborhood. Ann loves the idea. A cause is born.

Now, mid-way through the second season, funds have been allocated, and the pit has been filled. But the lot is not yet a park, and the golden thread of the show - the comic travails of a warmhearted idealist attempting to force her noble mission through the jungle of bureaucracy - is still the central drama.

It’s The Office for the age of Obama, and it taps into our subconscious national affection for the New Deal. While the show can get preachy at times - Knope’s boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), is a cynical, twice divorced, “anti-government” tough guy in favor of privatizing the Parks and Recreation Department that he himself is in charge of - it’s good to know that TV writers can still write affectionately about a do-gooder in government, living in a world where she could actually do some good. There is a default feeling of optimistic idealism in our national soul, and this is true even of TV writers. It is a feeling that no one, not even Ron Swanson, can quite stamp out.

But this is also the central flaw of the show. It is afraid to question its own idealism, and it is afraid to directly mock the absurd. Like The Office, Parks and Recreation is filmed in mokumentary style, with one camera floating around, capturing the daily life of a place of work from different angles. It is a style suited for satire. It captures the raised eyebrows and the awkward pauses. The first, say, two-and-half seasons of The Office used this to maximum satirical effect. They were shows which confronted and mocked the absurdities of office life, like email filters and diversity training seminars.

At some point, however, The Office transformed itself into a phantasmagoria, a show in which, instead of confronting the soul-crushing realities of the workplace, always provides a way for the workers to escape. Not actually escape, of course, but escape within their minds. They become schoolchildren. In last week’s episode of The Office, with all the characters confronted with the possibility of their company filing for bankruptcy, the manager decides to divert his workers with a game of “Murder.” Literally, he explains that this game is a diversion, and that he is “doing it for the kids.” The kids, meaning the workers. Parks and Recreation is a show with the same attitude.

Its characters behave as kids do. The Halloween episode three weeks ago contained this central psychological drama: Ann Perkins was afraid that her Halloween party was boring. This past week, everyone in the department was assigned to draw a picture that they thought represented the “spirit of Pawnee.” This was followed by a show-and-tell, grade school style, which was funny because it was silly, not because it was satirical of anything government-related.

A few episodes before that, Leslie Knope had to confront her shyness and awkwardness about going on first dates. Her love interest, Officer Dave Sanderson (played by the otherwise brilliant comedian, Louis C.K.), is exactly as awkward and shy as Knope when he asks her out on that date - exactly as awkward and shy, that is, as a 14 year old. It’s the social dynamic of Saved By the Bell, forced onto a different social context.

The problem with the show is ultimately a lack of courage. A satire is supposed to look at the absurd facts of life straight in the eye and laugh defiantly. What Parks and Recreation does is look at the absurdities of life, shrink back, and play silly or sentimental games. That’s all well and good, I guess, “for the kids” - though last time I checked, unemployment was at 11 percent, 17 percent if one uses a different statistical model.

Courage before such facts requires at least a smidgen of hope, or a sense that reality is a gift and not a neutral playground where we are ultimately disappointed. I want a comedy both ruthless and hopeful, not optimistic and childish.

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.